Irish poet, author, and professor Eavan Frances Boland passed away at her home in Dublin on Monday, April 27 at the age of 75.  Stanford University, where Boland taught since 1995, said in a statement that the cause was a stroke. 

Born in Dublin, Boland was the director of creative writing at Stanford for 21 years and a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry.

Boland wrote “The Emigrant Irish,“ one of the great poems of emigration and how hard it was for Irish forced to leave. Former Irish President Mary Robinson used it as her “Light in the Window” initiative to always have a light shining for emigrants welcoming them home in her presidential residence, Aras an Uachtarain.

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It is a profound poem, one I never tire reading.  It encapsulates a deep understanding of that emigrant experience often misunderstood by those who remained in Ireland.

Here it is, with my observations coming first before every stanza.

The Emigrant Irish 

1. (Boland lays bare the sad fact that many Irish forgot the millions of forced leave takers as soon as they had gone, that they and their trials and tribulations were old hat and there were lots more shiny objects to focus on in a thoroughly modern Ireland. Emigrants were like old oil lamps, no longer useful to remember.)

Like oil lamps, we put them out the back

of our houses, of our minds. We had lights

better than, newer than and then

a time came, this time and now

we need them. Their dread, makeshift example:

they would have thrived on our necessities.

2. (In this time of Covid-19, however, we need to remember what they went through, as Boland said, “What they survived, tragedies such as famine, cholera, pestilence, we in the modern era could never have lived through.)

What they survived we could not even live.

3. (“Their possessions may become our power” is among the most powerful lines in the poem, a plea to understand them and by understanding them deepening our ability to understand ourselves and others.)

By their lights now it is time to

imagine how they stood there, what they stood with,

that their possessions may become our power:

Cardboard. Iron. Their hardships parceled in them.

4. (Boland writes it is time that far from forgetting them we must embrace them like never before, standing with their cheap suitcases ready to embark from Ireland with nothing to bring but their own drive and belief. By embracing their experience we learn how profound the struggle was and the success.) 

Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering

in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.

And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.

(The final lines are especially evocative -- the old songs they took with them on their journey sustained them in their incredible voyage, and their songs can continue to inspire us all again especially at this time when such heavy concerns weigh on us all. The poem tells us that our people have all been here before, in the midst of darkness and chaos and we found our way out.  Our generation can learn from that and also succeed.)

Here is The Irish Emigrant in full: 

Like oil lamps, we put them out the back —

of our houses, of our minds. We had lights
better than, newer than and then

a time came, this time and now
we need them. Their dread, makeshift example:

they would have thrived on our necessities.
What they survived we could not even live.
By their lights now it is time to
imagine how they stood there, what they stood with,
that their possessions may become our power:
Cardboard. Iron. Their hardships parceled in them.
Patience. Fortitude. Long-suffering
in the bruise-colored dusk of the New World.

And all the old songs. And nothing to lose.

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